Putting the ‘political’ into political economy

We really should care about how party politics works—or isn’t working—in unsettled times

Stephanie Mudge
Stephanie Mudge

Are mainstream political parties capable of communicating meaningfully with voters and producing fresh thinking in today’s unsettled times? Most of the people I talk to don’t seem to think so. This isn’t necessarily new: political scientists have been commenting on the decline of political parties, and of voters’ identification with them, for a long time—but this has been largely an academic discussion. As I will argue here, it’s high time to bring it into the mainstream.

In the social sciences, a dominant way of thinking about party politics and representation since the 1950s has been that it all works very much like a market: parties ‘supply’ policies and agendas, and voters ‘demand’ what they want by voting according to their preferences. If the two things match up, then everyone’s happy: democracy is working.  Conveniently enough, new and improved polling technologies made it possible to see if, indeed, this was the case. So a poll could ask a general question, like: ‘Income inequality is a problem that politicians should fix. Do you (1) strongly agree, (2) agree somewhat, (3) neither agree nor disagree, (4) disagree somewhat, (5) strongly disagree?’ (note: this is hypothetical, I’m not quoting any particular poll), and then, if it turned out (for instance) that most people disagreed, and that their elected representatives also weren’t much concerned with inequality, and electoral institutions worked in a majoritarian way, then voilà! The political market was working.

This is an oversimplification of course, but it is the basic logic of what we might call the ‘perfect market’ model of politics. The problem is that it rests on a pretty shallow understanding of democratic representation. It ignores, for instance, party organisations, which come in many different shapes and sizes; it also ignores the possibility that parties and publics might not be so easily separated from each other—that is, that parties help to create and mould electoral publics, and vice versa.

Among the doubters of the perfect market model was the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that modern party politics in Western countries was increasingly characterised by collusion, monopoly, alienation and effective dispossession: in his words, ‘the market of politics is doubtless one of the least free markets that exists’.  What worried him was that the world of politics, as it became ever more dominated by professional politicians, experts and strategists, was mainly a force for shutting electoral publics out.  Modern parties, Bourdieu argued, tended to make voters into mere consumers of agendas and policies that had nothing to do with what they might understand as their ‘preferences’.

Far from a perfect market, party politics for Bourdieu worked more and more in ways that inclined people toward apathy, reducing political participation to an alienating world where voters had the ‘choice’ of a series of bad or meaningless options.  In this world, Bourdieu argued, voters mainly learn that ‘politics is not for them’.  To make his case, Bourdieu pointed to rising levels of political apathy, the sometimes surprisingly numerous instances of ‘don’t know’ responses on opinion polls, and qualitative studies in which people expressed a general sense of political disaffection—the feeling that no one was listening, that no one spoke for them. The problem is worst, Bourdieu argued, for the most vulnerable social groups, who are the most easily disqualified by the parties that claim to represent them. (Here he was targeting the parties of the left, apparently prompting some French socialists to refer to a particular kind of leftism, Bourdieu-style, as ‘la gauche bourdieusienne.’)

Bourdieu was not alone in making these kinds of claims. The political scientists Peter Mair and Richard Katz made similar arguments in 1995, arguing that parties had become ‘cartelized’, feeding a broad pattern of depoliticisation and disaffection. More recently, interesting work by Daniel Laurison  (at the LSE) on political professionals suggests that exactly the kind of closing-off that Bourdieu described may be at work in the American context.

These are incredibly important issues, but they don’t tend to get much press—despite the fact that they bear directly on debates over inequality that seem to be everywhere nowadays. In fact, it turns out that the more unequal Western societies have become, the less we vote (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Trends in income inequality (Gini index) & voter turnout, 1970-2010, for 22 OECD countries

(note: data are from the IDEA and LIS databases)

SM Graph 1

Now, this is just a rough estimation, but what the graph indicates is that today’s parallel between increasing inequality and decreasing voter turn-out may also be a relatively new development: once upon a time, as inequality declined, voters also stayed home more (the implication being that, if inequality had been going up, one could have reasonably expected that voter turn-out might increase). But since the 1980s the relationship became strikingly negative: as income inequality accelerated, voter turn-out declined.

The perfect market model of politics might suggest that this isn’t really problematic, particularly if it is the case that the majority of the voting-age population in Western countries believes that increasing income inequality is not really a problem.  Another possibility, though, is that growing inequality tends to feed people’s sense of political alienation.  There are plenty of signs in favour of this latter argument, including the proliferation of extreme parties—on both the left and right, but especially the right—during precisely the same time period:

Figure 2. Establishment of new extreme parties for 22 OECD countries

(note: data are from a personal dataset on the life and death of all political parties across 22 countries)

SM Graph2

Most disturbingly perhaps, as Figure 2 shows there are some parallels between what we see now and what was going on in party politics in the lead-up to World War II—that is, during another period of economic instability and growing inequality (keep in mind that many countries included here were not fully democratised at the time, so the establishment of new parties was more constrained). Back then most of the action was on the left; now, it’s increasingly on the right.

Perhaps it’s time, then, to treat the way we organise democratic representation as just as important as how we write economic policy. Put it all together, and I think it’s clear that there’s good reason to incorporate an analysis of party politics into our post-crisis economic policy discussions, by building a truly political economy for modern times.